The Canterbury Tales ~ The Knight’s Tale

As the pilgrims draw lots to determine who will be the first to tell their story, the first draw goes to the Knight.

              And when this excellent man saw how it stood,
              Ready to keep his promise, he said, “Good!”
              Since it appears that I must start the game,
              Why then, the draw is welcome, in God’s name
              Now let’s ride on and listen to what I say.”
              And with that word we rode forth on our way …

The first page of The Knight’s Tale
source Wikimedia Commons

The Knight’s Tale

After being appealed to by a number of deposed queens and duchesses from Thebes, King Theseus of Athens attacks the city and gains victory over Creon, King of Thebes.  During the fighting, two knights named Palamon and Arcite, are taken prisoner and thrown into a dungeon.  Left to rot there forever, Palamon one day spies Emelye, who is as fair as any damsel and the sister of Theseus’ wife Hippolyta, and he falls in love.  Arcite, wondering at this cousin’s lovelorn look, spots her too, claims his love of her, and acrimony is born within the love triangle of the cousins.

Portrait of a Knight (1510)
Vittore Carpaccio
source Wikiart

Years later, Arcite is released by Theseus upon request of a friend, but is sentenced to exile from which he laments Palamon’s better fate of prison, due to his being able to gaze upon Emelye, whereas Arcite has now been denied that pleasure. Eventually he risks returning to Athens in diguise as a page named Philostratus, who enters Emelye’s household.  One day he comes upon Palamon, who has escaped, they begin to fight but are stayed by Theseus who announces that he will set up a grand tournament of knights, and the one who is the victor will win Emelye’s hand in marriage.

Meanwhile, we find, that while Emelye has been the centre of this strife and turmoil, that she actually does not wish to marry either knight.  She relates to the goddess, Diana:

“To whom are open earth and sea and sky,
Goddess of maidens, well you know that I
Desire to be a maiden all my life,
And never to be a man’s love nor his wife.
Among your followers I have kept my place,
A maid, in love with hunting and the chase
And to go walking in the greenwood wild
And not to be a wife and be with child;
For nothing will I have to do with man.
Now help me, lady, since you may and can.”

But while Diana could help her, she refuses, stating that Emelye’s destiny has been ordained to marry one of the knights, but which, she will not tell.  Emelye submits to her fate with good grace.

Emilie dans le jardin observée par
Arcitas et Palamon emprisonnés (1460)
source Wikimedia Commons

Palamon prays to Venus for victory, but we get a long description of Arcite in his battle attire before we hear of him offering sacrifices, and for him, it is to the god, Mars; so we have Palamon appealing to the goddess of Love, and Arcite appealing to the god of War.  Who do you think will win?

Ah, it appears that Arcite triumphs, bearing down Palamon and his knights, capturing him and taking him to the stake.  Venus is shamed with the outcome, but Saturn asssures her that she will also have her desire.  But how, with Palamon conquered and Arcite set to wed Emelye?

Well, Arcite has little time to enjoy his achievement.  Helmetless, he is pitched to the ground by his horse, landing on his head and receiving mortal wounds. He lasts a short time before succumbing, and Emelye and Palamon are in mourning.  But good King Theseus delivers a long speech about the Prime Mover and how all earthly beings must submit to the higher order of things. He blesses the wedding of Palamon and Emelye, and they live happily without jealousy and with extreme tenderness.

One can tell that there is much more to this tale than what is simple cloaking the surface.  First, there is the obvious emphasis on fate or destiny or a higher power:  Emelye, though she does not wish to marry, readily capitulates to Venus’ edict that she must; and, of of course, while it initially appears to all the people that Arcite will wed Emelye, there is a “blueprint” already in place for everyone’s destiny that man, in his puniness, cannot yet see.  A life lived well is to submit to the inevitable, yet take opportunities when they come to you.

Emilie à la chasse assistant au combat entre Arcitas et Palamon
Source: Wikimedia Commons

There is also an emphasis on nature and it’s interaction with man.  The General Prologue initially drew us right into Nature and Spring “Whan that Aprille with his shoures sote, The droghte of Marche hath perced to the rote, And bathed every veyne in swich licour, Of which vertu engendred is the flour.”  From the sky and nature, we are then taken to be introduced to the earthly pilgrims.  In The Knight’s Tale, in the building of the sepulcher for Arcite, there is an obvious battle between nature and man, as Theseus fells the “old oaks” to make a funeral bier:

“You will not hear from me how all the trees
Were felled, nor how the local deities,
Nymphs, fauns, and hamadryads and the rest,
Ran up and down, scattered and dispossessed,
Nor how the beasts and wood birds, one and all,
Fled terrified when the trunks began to fall;
Nor how the ground stood all aghast and bright,
Affronted with the unfamiliar light ….”

There is a continuous tension between man and his environment, again perhaps due to either his lack of foresight, or his inability to understand the grand plan of the Prime Mover.

And, of course, in the battle between Arcite and Palamon and their gods, in spite of the appearance of war winning over love, it is love which achieves the ultimate victory.

I’m certain there are many other themes included, such as pageantry, hierarchical Medevial structure, and not so much the capriciousness of the gods, but the uncertainty of destiny, but I’ve probably explored this tale as much as I can for the first read.  One curious point struck me though ….. although this story is set in Greece, the gods are all given Roman names, instead of their Greek ones.  I have no idea why, but it is a puzzling choice.

The next tale up, is The Miller’s Tale ……

The Canterbury Tales/ The Brubury TalesProject
The Knight’s Tale

The Cantebury Tales ~ The General Prologue

I’ve decided to join O at Behold the Stars in her reading of The Canterbury Tales.  Yes, it’s one of my projects for the year, my The Canterbury Tales/The Brubury Tales Project, but I’ve been really terrible at keeping up on my projects so I’m hoping someone else will give me that kick where I so desperately need it, or at the very least, drag me along.

I’m starting off reading from The Portable Chaucer with a translation by Theodore Morrison, but I suspect that it doesn’t include all the tales, so once the library book comes in, I’ll be reading The Penguin edition translated by Nevill Coghill.  O, the clever person that she is, is reading it in Middle English. Something to aspire to but not now. :-Z

Portrait of Chaucer – 17th century
source Wikipedia

It is surmised that Chaucer met Bocaccio, who perhaps influenced this work, as it begins in a similar way to Bocaccio’s The Decameron.  In The Decameron, a number of lords and ladies escape the Black Death of Florence and begin a story-telling marathon in their exile, whereas in The Canterbury Tales, a group of pilgrims are on their way to Canterbury and on their journey, each tells a tale.  Originally Chaucer meant each pilgrim to tell four tales, two on the way there and two on the way back, but the manuscript breaks off with them still on their travels, so the final intent of Chaucer remains unknown.  The original order of the tales is also unclear, but going with O’s the Riverside Chaucer, we’ll be breaking the tales down as follows:

Week 1: General Prologue
Week 2: The Knight’s Tale
Week 3: The Miller’s Prologue and Tale, The Reeve’s Prologue and Tale, The Cook’s Prologue and Tale
Week 4: The Man Of Law’s Introduction, Prologue, Tale, and Epilogue
Week 5: The Wife of Bath’s Prologue and Tale
Week 6: The Friar’s Prologue and Tale, The Summoner’s Prologue and Tale
Week 7: The Clerk’s Prologue and Tale
Week 8: The Merchant’s Prologue, Tale, and Epilogue
Week 9: The Squire’s Introduction and Tale, The Franklin’s Prologue and Tale
Week 10: The Physician’s Tale, The Pardoner’s Introduction, Prologue, and Tale, The Shipman’s Tale
Week 11: The Prioress’s Prologue and Tale, The Prologue and Tale of Sir Thopas
Week 12: The Tale of Melibee
Week 13: The Monk’s Prologue and Tale, The Nun Priest’s Prologue, Tale, and Epilogue
Week 14: The Second Nun’s Prologue and Tale, The Canon’s Yeoman’s Prologue and Tale
Week 15: The Manciple’s Prologue and Tale, The Parson’s Prologue and Tale
Week 16: Chaucer’s Retraction. Conclusion.

If I haven’t finished by the beginning of November, you can all throw rotten tomatoes at me.

So let’s start off with The General Prologue.

Initially Chaucer describes the setting of the pilgrims’ starting point, in a beautiful poetic manner that establishes the ambiance of a lovely spring day.

“As soon as April pierces to the root
The drought of March, and bathes each bud and shoot
Through every vein of sap with gentle showers
From whose engendering liquor spring the flowers;
When zephyrs have breathed softly all about
Inspiring every wood and field to sprout,
And in the zodiac the youthful sun
His journey halfway through the Ram has run;
When little birds are busy with their song
Who sleep with open eyes the whole night long
Life stirs their hearts and tingles in them so,

Then people long on pilgrimage to go, …..”

Chaucer, himself one of the pilgrims, arrives at Southwark at the Tabard, and meets with twenty-nine other pilgrims, all ready to set out for Canterbury.  He introduces each, starting with The Knight, who is is honoured and respected and who has fought many battles in the name of Christ.  Yet in spite of his skill with a sword, he is deferential and temperate, embracing his code of chivalry.  His son, a Squire, is with him, a lad who is determined to have exploits to honour his lady.  He also has a Yeoman traveling with him, tidy and trim with a doughty demeanour, a strong bow and a St. Christopher’s medal.

A Nun, known as Madame Eglantine, carries the dignity of religion with her, showing a love and empathy for animals and a tidiness that becomes her. Nevertheless, this Prioress is attached to courtly ways and displays a pride in her accomplishments.  She is escorted by a Priest and an Attendant Nun who acts as her secretary.

Next, a Monk is introduced and while his description is an unexpectedly unusual description for a Monk, during Chaucer’s time the church was experiencing a degradation of religion and many of its adherents were infected with worldly desires.  This Monk much prefers fashion and hunting to the austerity of his order. It sounds like Chaucer, the narrator, approves of his designs and exploits.

The next in line is a Friar, who is gay and jolly. He is like a roving churchman who performs church services as he goes.  Yet, again, this Friar likes wealthy men, pretty women and money given as penance.  He prefers bars and barmaids to giving consolation and blessings to lepers.  Our rather unreligious Friar is christened Hubert.

The Merchant is very caught up in his business and enjoys the elevation of his station.  He knows his job well and is very full of himself, yet is he as rich as he seems?  Not only his financial acumen is highlighted, but his personal shrewdness, and the narrator confesses that he is never able to discover his name.

An Oxford Student shows his poverty by his shabby clothes, but exhibits a richness in learning and the value of philosophy.  He is willing to both learn and teach.

A crafty, yet diplomatic Lawyer or The Man of Law is one of the party.  He appears efficient and respected in his field.

The Franklin, or the “free man,” loves his food so much that there is always food at his table.

Five Guildsmen, a Weaver, a Dyer, a Carpenter, a Tapestry-maker and a Haberdasher are wealthy and respected in their crafts.  Their livery identifies their artistry. With them, they carry a Cook who ensures that they eat well.

The Skipper or Shipman is well-traveled and experienced at his job, but he is not shy about stealing from the wine casks.  He does not appear at home on a horse, riding it as if he were at sea.

The Physician

The Physician is particularly interesting.  I sense a sarcasm within Chaucer’s description and though he seems to know his profession and be able to deal with a number of maladies, he takes advantage of his patients for financial gain, and his spiritual life is less than ideal.

“Of nothing in excess would he admit.
He gave but little heed to Holy Writ.
His clothes were lined with taffeta; their hue
Was all of blood read and of Persian blue ..”

Next, The Woman or Wife of Bath is a rather large, broad-beamed woman, but she is dressed well and has a skill at weaving that is unsurpassed.  She’s had many husbands and lovers and is well-versed in the art of love.  She is also well-travelled.

The Parson is given a long description praising his integrity, his sacrifice and his faithful adherence to his faith.  He is patient, gives offerings to the poor, and tries to teach by being a good example to others.  He is a wonderful illustration of a man of virtue, and a credit to his church flock.

The Plowman  c. 1525
Hans Holbein the Younger

We meet the brother of The Parson, The Plowman.  He loves God with all his heart, and is in charity with everyone.  He tithes regularly and his clothes reflect his humble station.

A big beefy man is The Miller and his physicality is emphasized, along with his rather unpleasant countenance, and his proclivity for stealing corn and selling it at three times the price.  He leads the pilgrims out of town whilst blowing his bagpipes.

The Manciple, or officer who buys supplies for a college, monastery or other institution, is lacking a formal education but is, nevertheless, ingenious in his dealings and more adroit than his clients.  He is a master at deception.

Possessing a fiery disposition and a wiry frame, The Reeve, or steward of a manor, is of questionable character.  While he ensures that no one steals from his master, he himself avails himself of that which belongs to his employer.  He is so shrewd that no one can catch him in his dishonesty.

The Summoner, a man who brings those who are in violation of church law to ecclesiastical court, is a lecherous character with a fearsome leprous face.  He uses the little Latin he knows to cover his intellectual inadequacy.  He does not have a respect for his vocation.

The Pardoner, one who grants papal indulgences, is a waxy, greasy sort of fellow, who we are led to disbelieve.  He carries with him a number of fake relics, which he sells to unsuspecting, trusting people.  He is religious and respectable on the surface, but underneath, he is rotten.

The Host is a big, cheery man who appears to have control of the group.  He sets the rules out for the tales, four for each pilgrim, two going to Canterbury and two returning.  We will see that this plan does not pan out.

The Narrator:  is it Chaucer, or is it Chaucer but not really Chaucer?  We will see, as we go.

The portraits of these pilgrims show the social organization of Chaucer’s England.  First comes the Knight, the Squire and the Yeoman, which represent the nobility or the upper class.  Next comes the Clergy: a prioress with her attendent priest and helper, a Monk and a Friar.  After the clergy comes the pilgrims who represent the merchantiles and professions of the cities and towns of Chaucer’s England.  Finally we are introduced to a number of figures who perhaps don’t represent a particular group, but nevertheless have a firm identity in Chaucer’s time.

Chaucer’s depiction of the pilgrims follows the Medieval literary technique of description in that description can be accomplished in two ways: using both internal qualities and external attributes.  We can ask ourselves as we read, how these two means of description affect the reader; which might elicit a stronger response and how does one influence the other to create tension within a story.  Chaucer uses each to make a social commentary and his means of using this technique is quite fascinating.  You get a sense with Chaucer’s descriptions, that while he can appear to be praising and giving his characters good qualities, at times he is, in fact, doing quite the opposite.

The Canterbury Tales/The Brubury Tales Project
The General Prologue
The Knight’s Tale

The Pre-Printing Press Challenge 2015

For the second year in a row, I’m going to participate in The Pre-Printing Press Challenge hosted by Elena at All Booked Up.  I believe books written before 1440 are largely under-read, so anything I can do to support these works, I will.

Last year I planned to read 4-6 books and I’ve made it to 12.  My success makes me want to branch out but, knowing that I have challenges that will keep me reading newer books —- Reading England Challenge, Jane Austen Project, etc. ——, I’ll reign myself in and aim for the trusty 4-6 books, hoping to read more.  What do I have in mind?  Well, from my Classics Club list, I hope to get to Herodotus’ Histories, The Republic by Plato and The Cantebury Tales.  Otherwise, I’d like to read Ovid’s Metamorphoses and Plutarch’s Lives, but these are two chunksters that I don’t see myself being able to fit in this coming year.  However, one never knows ………

The rules of the Pre-Printing Press Challenge:
  1. All books must have come out before 1440, when the printing press was first invented.
  2. Books chosen for this challenge can overlap with other challenges.
  3. Books can be translated into the language of your choice.
  4. All the books you’ve chosen must be read by December 31, 2015.
  5. You can read 1-3 books, 4-6 books, 7-9 books or 10 or more books if you’re feeling particularly ambitious.
  6. The choice of books is up to you. There are no set reading lists, and you don’t have to set one when you join.
  7. Post your blog address where you’ll be posting your comments on your choice of books in the comments of this post when you join, and tell me how many books you’ve chosen. I’ll set up a link to participating blogs from here.
  8. Above all, Have fun.

The challenge starts January 1st.

Are there any other ancient and early medieval literature enthusiasts out there who are planning to join this challenge?

The Epic of Gilgamesh

“The one who saw the abyss I will make the land know;
of him who knew all, let me tell the whole story
 ………… in the same way …….
[as] the lord of wisdom, he who knew everything, Gilgamesh,
who saw things secret, opened the place hidden,
and carried back word of the time before the Flood —
he travelled the road, exhausted, in pain,
and cut his works into a stone tablet.”

Gilgamesh, king of Uruk.  Two-thirds god and one-third man, he built the walls of Uruk, the palace Eanna, and is powerful and commanding.  There is no king like him anywhere.  Yet in spite of having many of the qualities that could make him an honoured king, Gilgamesh oppresses his people and they cry out for relief.  The gods create a wild man, Enkidu is his name. They fight and become fast friends, relieving the people of Gilgamesh’s despotism. Many adventures they have together, and many discoveries they make. Together they behead Humbaba who lives in the cedar forest and they also manage to kill The Bull of Heaven.  Yet one of them must pay for this transgression and Enkidu falls ill, dying even as he laments.  A heart-torn Gilgamesh, determined to find Utnapishtim and find the secret of everlasting life, travels through a number of trials to his journey’s end.  “Surely, Gilgamesh,” Utnapishtim tells him, “you can stay awake for just a week, if you are expecting to have eternal life.”  But Gilgamesh fails the test.  In spite of his near godly status, our hero cannot escape the mortality common to all men.

“My friend Enkidu, whom I loved so dear, who with me went through every danger, the goom of mortals overtook him. 

Six days I wept for him and seven nights: I did not surrender his body for burial until a maggot dropped from his nostril.  Then I was afraid that I, too, would die.  I grew fearful of death, so I wandered the wild. 

…. How can I keep silent?  How can I stay quiet?  My friend, whom I loved, has turned to clay.  My friend Enkidu, whom I loved, has turned to clay.  Shall I not be like him and also lie down, never to rise again, through all eternity?”

Gilgamesh
from the Chaldean
account of Genesis
source Wikipedia

I found many paradoxes in this poem: Gilgamesh is a strong leader, yet he also abuses his power; Gilgamesh is two-thirds god, yet he is also doomed to die; Gilgamesh and Enkidu fight in order to bring peace to Uruk; women are portrayed as vehicles for pleasure, yet are also shown as being wise and having foresight; Enkidu is initially a wild-man, yet he is the one who “tames” Gilgamesh; and in spite of often not sleeping throughout most of the poem, Gilgamesh sleeps at the end, which prevents him from attaining immortality.

Yet in spite of the contradictions, the poet is clear that strength over reason is valueless. Gilgamesh learns that it is trust and integrity in the end that bring acclaim: valuing a friend’s life over his own, discovering the wisdom of accepting death as a part of life, and that being a true leader is about good character and responsibility to his subjects, rather than exercising tyranny, oppression and conquest over them.

And in spite of its ancient roots, the poem still resonates with us today.  Here is a video of Captain Picard from Star Trek the Next Generation giving a short summary of Gilgamesh, in the episode “Darmok” (my favourite episode, BTW!) 🙂

About the translation:  The Sîn-Leqi Unninni Gilgamesh story, found in the library of Ashurbanipal, is the most recent Akkadian version (circa 1200 BC), and is considered the “standard” version.  The editors used it as their fragment of choice and because it contained a number of books that had only a few recoverable words, they had to resort to notes and the Old Babylonian version, in order for the reader to get the gist of the story.  For my first read, in hindsight, I may have chosen a more fluid version, but this version was certainly adequate and scholarly enough that you got the full context of the poem.

Translated from the Sîn-Leqi Unninni version by John Gardiner and John Maier

The Sayings of the Desert Fathers

“This book is an account of the virtuous asceticism and admirable way of life and also of the words of the holy and blessed fathers.”

The Desert Fathers were a group of faithful monks and nuns who chose to settle mainly in Lower Egypt, mostly around the desert of Scetes. While some of them lived in groups and had at least some contact with the outside world, some were hermits who preferred to live in seclusion.  Asceticism was also practiced by many to purify their souls.  While Paul of Thebes was the first monk to retire to the desert, Saint Anthony the Great was the one to begin the exodus.  These Desert Fathers served as the early model for Christian monasticism.

As expected, there are many sayings that deal with religion:

Abba Epiphanius:

  • He also said, “Ignorance of the Scriptures is a precipice and a deep abyss.” 
  • Someone else asked him, “Is one righteous man enough to appease God?”  He replied, “Yes, for he himself has written: ‘Find a man who lives according to righteousness, and I will pardon the whole people.’ (Jer. 5:11)

We also find sayings from fathers instructing their disciples:

Abba Agathon:

  • The same Abba Agathon was walking with his disciples.  One of them, finding a small green pea on the road, said to the old man, “Father, may I take it?”  The old man, looking at him with astonishment, said, “Was it you who put it there?” “No,” replied the brother.  “How then,” continued the old man, “can you take up something which you did not put down?”

And fathers who seek harmony:

Abba Paul the Barber:

  • Abba Paul the Barber and his brother Timothy lived in Scetis. They often used to argue.  So Abba Paul said, “How long shall we go on like this?”  Abba Timothy said to him, “I suggest you take my side of the argument and in my turn I will take your side when you oppose me.”  They spent the rest of their days in this practice.

Coptic icon of
St. Anthony the Great
source Wikipedia

Philosophical fathers:

Abba Anthony the Great:

  • He also said, “God does not allow the same warfare and temptations to this generation as he did formerly, for men are weaker now and cannot bear so much.”

Abba Poeman:

  • He also said, “Men speak to perfection but they do precious little about it.”

And somewhat grumpy fathers:

Abba Arsenius:

  • Blessed Archbishop Theophilus, accompanied by a magistrate, came one day to find Abba Arsenius.  He questioned the old man to hear a word from him.  After a short silence the old man answered him, “Will you put into practice what I say to you?”  They promised him this.  “If you hear Arsenius is anywhere, do not go there.”
  • Another time the archbishop, intending to come to see him, sent someone to see if the old man would receive him.  Arsenius told him, “If you come, I shall receive you; but if I receive you, I receive everyone and therefore I shall no longer live here.”  Hearing that, the archbishop said, “If I drive him away by going to him, I shall not go anymore.”
    Saint Arsenius
    fresco at Mt. Athos, 14th century
    source Wikipedia

And lastly, not only sayings from the Desert Fathers, but saying from the “Desert Sisters,” as well:

Amma Syncletica:

  • She also said, “It is good not to get angry, but if this should happen, the Apostle does not allow you a whole day for this passion, for he says: “Let no the sun go down.” (Eph. 4:25)  Will you wait till all your time is ended?  Why hate the man who has grieved you?  It is not he who has done the wrong, but the devil.  Hate sickness but not the sick person.”
  • She also said, “Just as it is impossible to be at the same moment both a plant and a seed, so it is impossible for us to be surrounded by worldly honour and at the same time to bear heavenly fruit.”

I was expecting to have to slog through this book, but what a delightful surprise.  While these Fathers obviously knew their Scriptures and spent time with God, their focus was on themselves: refining their souls and being a good example to those around them. The personalities of each of them shone through in their sayings and, in spite of many of the sayings being quite short and compact, they brought a window into their lives of asceticism, their values and struggles that was very compelling.  An enlightening read that gives not only a fascinating window into this era of history, but also imparts values that are as relevant today as they were in the 3rd and 4th century.

Defence Speeches by Cicero

“I imagine you must be wondering, members of the jury, why it is that, when there are so many leading orators and men of the highest rank present here in court, I of all people should have stood up to address you; for neither in age, nor in ability, nor in authority do I bear comparison with these men who have remained seated.”

So begins, Cicero’s first speech, Pro Roscio Amerino, his first speech delivered in a criminal court when he was a young 26-year-old defence advocate.  While Defence Speeches contains five speeches that Cicero gave during the years 80 B.C. to 52 B.C., this speech is my favourite.  It shows Cicero as a fresh, young advocate, willing to take chances, yet also using his wiles to sway listeners to his point of view.  His rhetoric is at once firm and decisive, yet also almost self-effacing at times, but in an astute and cunning manner that only serves to increase his power.  His client, Sextus Roscius, was, in the end, acquitted of patricide, and this case helped begin Cicero’s journey to rhetorical fame.

The defence speech, Pro Milone, is one of Cicero’s most famous, as he defended Titus Annius Milo against the charge of murdering the tyrant, Publius Clodius Pulcher.  It was an unusual defeat for him, but it is one speech for which we have an independent account from a 1st century scholar, Quintus Asconius Pedianus.  Because of the secondary source, we can target possible inconsistencies in Cicero’s presentation of the facts, which are backed by other evidence.  It is said that because the trial was so politically volatile and emotions so unstable, Cicero had to perform under unusual circumstances.  Ancient sources disagree as to the cause of Cicero’s less than stellar performance (some say threats from Clodian supporters, some say the soldiers stationed around the forum made him uneasy) but the end result was a vote of 38 to 13 of “guilty” and Milo was sent into exile.

In spite of the defeat, Milo did not seem to hold a grudge.  When Cicero sent a copy of this defence speech, written at a later date, to Milo, Milo joking replied that it was fortunate that a speech in that form had never been heard in court because he would then not be enjoying the wonderful mullets in Massalia (Marseilles – his place of exile).

Cicero denounces Cataline (1882-88)
fresco by Caesare Maccari
source Wikipedia

If one is familiar with the history of Clodius, one can only conclude that Milo did the empire a favour by getting rid of him.  Suspected of committing incest with his sister, Clodius employed gangs to terrorize the citizens of Rome and the surrounding country, for his own political and monetary benefit.  In 63 B.C., he was able to exile Cicero for his involvement in the illegal execution of five Catlinarian conspirators, and while Cicero was away, proceeded to demolish his elegant house, attempting to have the ground consecrated to deny any further right to build upon the site.  Upon Cicero’s return, Clodius’ gangster tactics continued, as he regularly had his gangs harass Cicero’s workmen as they attempted to re-build his home.

Also included in this book are the speeches, Pro Murena, Pro Archia, and Pro Caelio, where he defends against electoral malpractice, illegal exercise of citizen rights, and civil disturbance, respectively.

From some of these speeches, the reader is given a window into Rome during its more turbulent times, and one realizes, among the grandeur, learning and sophistication, there is continual political unrest and moral decay, boiling in a cesspool of men grasping wildly for prestige and power. It’s a book that probably should be read in “doses”, but the value of the historical import and the insight into human ambition cannot be underestimated.

Confessions by Saint Augustine

“You are great, Lord, and highly to be praised: great is your power and your wisdom is immeasurable.”

Book No. 1

Book:  The Confessions of Saint                   Augustine
          
          Oxford World Classics
            Translation:  Henry Chadwick

I’m starting my Well-Educated Mind Biography Project with possibly the first biography ever written, Confessions by St. Augustine.  Born in 354 A.D. in Thagaste, which is modern day Algeria, Augustine reveals his time as a boy growing up in North Africa, his profession as a teacher of rhetoric, his travels to Rome, his connections with the Manicheans*, and finally his conversion to Christianity.  We, as a reader, are privileged to have a window into his life and internal struggles, as he asks questions about life and God.

*Manicheanism:  a quasi-religion that taught a dualism of everything that is material is evil, and everything that is spirit is good.  Their beliefs caused them to take rather bizarre views of Christian teachings such as:  because God created a material world, he cannot be good; Jesus did not become man because all material is evil, etc.

First Stage of Reading:

What historical events coincide-or merge-with these personal events?
Augustine lived in the Roman Empire during a time of political, social and religious turmoil, which helped him to produce prolific amounts of writing addressing these situations.  

Augustine was born in a century where at the beginning, Christianity was a persecuted religion, yet at the end of the century most people of the Roman Empire were at least ostensibly Christian and Christianity was the official religion of the Empire.  As the church attempted to determine its nature,  there were many disputes among Christians and much of Augustine’s writing deals with these issues.  He also endeavoured to reconcile pagan thought with Christian values, one of the first Latin writers to explore the benefits of pagan ideas as well as assessing their limitations.
Who is the most important person (or people) in the writer’s life?

Perhaps the most important person in Augustine’s life was his mother, Monica.  Her prayers and petitions for him were unceasing and what a wonderful thing for her to see him eventually become a believer.  

Ambrose, the archbishop of Milan, was instrumental in Augustine’s journey away from Manichean belief and towards a belief in God.  Augustine respected his intellect and his influence on Augustine was unequivocal, as he encouraged him to look beyond the literal into the substance of the Bible, and asserted that a deeper meaning could be found there, contrary to what Augustine had learned from his Manichean teachers.  

Saint Augustine in his study (1480)
Sandro Botticelli
source Wikipedia


The Second Stage of Reading:


What is the theme that ties the narrative together?
Confession is the most important word in this work.  It is as if Augustine must confess to make his journey complete. 
What is the life’s turning point?  Is there a conversation?

Well, of course, Confessions is a very long conversation of Augustine’s with God.  But in reference to his conversion, I believe it was more a process.  Augustine himself said that he believed that God was with him and guiding him even when he was living with sin and recriminations.  He also makes reference to not being ready to hear or act on certain convictions, so in retrospect, while Confessions is a conversation with God, it is also the story of his life.  I like this presentation because it makes his life meaningful; even though Augustine at times made poor choices and employed wrong-thinking, none of his life, in effect, was “wasted.”

The Confessions of Saint Augustine
source Wikipedia

The Third Stage of Reading:


What are the three moments, or time frames, of the autobiography?
1.        As a child, forming a poor character by stealing and valuing things that were superficial .  He grew up accepting the social value of using knowledge as an end, rather than as a means to forming good character, yet he could see that there was no fruit in this approach to life.

2.        As a young man, being influenced by friends and being draw into the Manichean beliefs as he searched for meaning in the world.  Augustine seemed to straddle the life of worldly pleasures and the search for a life of  abiding faith.

3.       As a more mature man, finding a way of reconciling God to his intellect, converting to Christianity, discovering joy and peace, and writing his confessions.
Do you agree with what the writer has done?

I absolutely love that Augustine kept searching.  We all get pulled into the world to a certain extent, by technology, materialism, etc. and we all struggle with our human nature.  Augustine’s search for God ended not only in finding Him, but by learning that God had been search for him all-along.  And in the end, Augustine was no longer living for himself but for God, a manner of living that brought such joy and contentment to his spirit.

Saint Augustine & Saint Monica (1846)
Ary Scheffer
source Wikipedia

This book is broken up into two section, the first being Augustine’s autobiography (the first 9 books) and the second being theological & philosophical works (the last 4 books).  With regard to the latter, Augustine’s curiosity and quite astounding intellect can leave his reader going “huh?” as we try to navigate with him through the quite confusing realms of memory & senses, the meaning of time, and the book of Genesis and how it intersects with the Trinity.  In retrospect, the change in tone between these two sections are perhaps not as unusual as they first appear.  In the first nine autobiographical books, Augustine is dealing with the past, yet with the second section, he deals with the present and some of the thoughts that he is reflecting on during his life as a bishop.  These subjects also tie into the material he has already presented:  memory affects his presentation of his past experiences, time relates to the existence of his past recollections, and the chapters on Genesis and the Trinity are reminiscent of his earlier inquiries on how to read the Bible and how to view God.

During my first reading of Confessions, the last few chapters honestly went over my head, but with this second reading, I was able to follow Augustine’s train of thought at least now and then.  I will definitely re-read this book in the future.  There is so much to draw from this great intellect and I still feel that I have only scratched the surface.

Portrait by Phillipe de Champaigne
17th century
source Wikipedia

Favourite Quotes:

“If anyone find your simultaneity beyond his understanding, it is not for me to explain it.  Let him be content to say ‘What is this?’ (Exod. 16:15).  So too let him rejoice and delight in finding you who are beyond discovery rather than fail to find you by supposing you to be discoverable.”

In our present time, where progress counts for so much, how many people would be content with not knowing?  And how paradoxical that a desire for discovery of something unknowable, actually brings less knowledge than “not knowing”.

“There is never an obligation to be obedient to orders which it would be pernicious to obey.”

Further reading: 

http://www.college.columbia.edu/core/node/1759 



Oedipus at Colonus by Sophocles

“I am blind and old, Antigone, my child.”

Now blind and aged, Oedipus, with his daughter, Antigone, arrive at a place just outside of Athens called Colonus.  Though warned by a villager that this place in which they wish to reside is sacred, possessed by the all-seeing Eumenides (Furies), a land of Poseidon and Prometheus, and the founding stone of Athens, Oedipus refuses to leave.  A past prophecy has determined that the sacred grove of the Eumenides at Colonus, will be the site of his death, and here he is determined to stay.

Oedipus at Colonus
Jean-Antoine-Théodore (1788)
source Wikipedia

When a chorus of men of the city arrive and, upon learning the identity of Oedipus, they attempt to persuade him to depart from their city, fearing his curse will bring trouble to them.  Oedipus defends his position by agruing that because he had no knowledge of his crimes, he is therefore not responsible for the consequences, in particular, claiming self-defence in the murder of his father, Laius.

But lo, into the fray rides his daughter, Ismene, bringing news that Oedipus’ youngest son, Eteocles, has seized the throne of Thebes from the elder, Polynices, and both sons have heard from the oracle that the outcome of their conflict will depend entirely on the location of their father’s burial.  Yet there is more treachery!  Creon (brother-in-law to Oedipus) is, as she speaks, on his way to ensure that Oedipus will be buried at the border of Thebes, without the ceremony, in an attempt to negate the oracle’s proclamation.  
Oedipus at Colonus
Fulchran-Jean Harriet (1798)
source Wikipedia

Denouncing them all as villains, Oedipus meets with Theseus, King of Athens who shows sympathy for his predicament, offering unconditional protection and making him a citizen of his country.  How Oedipus praises his saviour, and declares that his beneficent actions will ensure Athens victory in any altercation with Thebes!

When Theseus exits, Antigone announces the advent of Creon.  At first, he attempts to manipulate Oedipus using pity, but when he sees this tact will not bring him success, he admits to kidnapping Ismene, and grabs Antigone to forcibly take her away.  Theseus returns in kingly grandeur to scold Creon, then the Athenians overpower the Thebians, returning both girls to their father.

Oedipus Cursing Polynices (1786)
Henri Fuseli
source Wikipedia

One thinks that at last Oedipus might get some peace in his last hours, but it is not to be.  Informed by Theseus that a suppliant has arrived to speak with him, he learns it is his son, Polynices, who begs his father to release the curse he had placed on his sons for their part in his banishment from Thebes, knowing that their conflict is a result of the curse.  Oedipus, in complete disgust of his offspring, refuses and Polynices exits to meet his near-certain fate.

A thunderstorm ensues, which portends Oedipus’ passing.  Oedipus gifts Theseus with the promised gift of protection for Athens and then passes into Hades.  When Antigone wishes to see his tomb, Theseus refuses in response to a promise to Oedipus, never to reveal the location of his tomb.  Antigone departs to attempt to stop her brothers’ conflict.

There is a curious dichotomy in this play with regard to the character of Oedipus.  In spite of the fact he is an exiled, blind old man, with a terrible curse upon him, rarely do you find him subject to the other characters.  In fact, Antigone listens closely to his counsel, he has a command and influence over Theseus, he manages to overcome Creon, and also best his son by refusing to assist him.  On the outside, he is aged, infirm and at the mercy of his hosts, but in actuality, Oedipus is the master of each situation.

Yet Oedipus also places emphasis on his innocence with regard to his crimes.  Again and again, he proclaims to the chorus of Athenian men that he had no pre-knowledge of his transgressions and was, therefore, blameless.  This was a different reaction from Oedipus Rex, where he seemed to take the crimes on to himself, and punish himself for them.

The Death of Oedipus (1784)
Henry Fuseli
source Wikipedia

While on one level, the trials and sufferings born by Oedipus seemed somewhat random in Oedipus Rex, in Oedipus at Colonus we see a culmination of prophecy.  By his exile, Oedipus is brought to the sacred grove of the Eumenides (Furies), fulfilling prophecy, and although this exile was brought about by a curse, Oedipus is actually turned into a hero-type figure by bringing blessing and protection upon the important city of Athens.

Of the 123 plays that Sophocles wrote, only seven complete plays have survived.  That makes me want to cry.  However, parts of plays are still being discovered.  In 2005, additional fragments of a play about the second siege of Thebes, Epigoni, were discovered by employing infrared technology by classicists at Oxford University.  So there is hope that the ancients can still speak to us through time (and new technology) and, as Gandalf said, that is a very comforting thought, indeed!

The book was completed for my Classics Club Spin #6.

Translated by David Grene
Edited by David Grene & Richard Lattimore

Oedipus Rex by Sophocles

“Children, young sons and daughters of old Cadmus, why do you sit here with your suppliant crowns?”

A dark curse is upon Thebes.  Blighted cattle and plants cover the land, the women are barren and a deadly plague creeps throughout the kingdom, sparing no one in its fatal grasp.  Creon, brother-in-law to King Oedipus, reveals that the curse placed on the kingdom is a result of the murder of its last king, Laius, and until the perpetrator is found, there is no hope of relief from their present woes.  Oedipus, king of Thebes, calls the wisest man to the palace, the blind prophet, Teiresias, to discover the identity of the vile culprit.  
Yet through wise Teiresias and the shepherds of Laius, it is revealed that Oedipus was unwittingly the killer, slaying the king on a road to Thebes, in self-defence and completely unaware of his victim’s identity.  Unbeknownst to Oedipus, he was fulfilling a prior prophecy, that he would kill his father and marry his mother.  And true to prophecy, Oedipus, after freeing Thebes from a different curse by solving the riddle of the Sphinx, became the new king of Thebes and married the current queen, Jocasta, also his mother.

Oedipus after he solves the riddle
of the Sphinx (1808)
Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres
source Wikipedia

Upon hearing the fulfillment of the curse, a stunned and horrified Oedipus flees, yet soon finds Jocasta has hanged herself with shame and, grabbing the brooches from her garments, dashes his eyes out until blood flows in rivers down his face. At the behest of Oedipus, Creon banishes him from the city.

The sins of murder and incest has blighted the life of Oedipus and the lives of his progeny; his sons will be left without a father or inheritance and his daughters will be ostracized, unable to marry.  His anguished speech carries notes of his misery and devastation:

“What can I see to love?
What greeting can touch my ears with joy?
Take me away, and haste —– to a place out of the way!
Take me away, my friends, the greatly miserable,
the most accursed, whom God too hates
above all men on earth!”

The state of blindness and the character of Oedipus are closely linked. Instead of listening to the wisdom of the blind prophet, Teiresias, Oedipus refuses to believe him, therefore choosing blindness over knowledge.  Later in the play, when he accepts the knowledge of his actions, he physically blinds himself, which echoes his emotional blindness earlier in the story.

Can one commit a crime with complete lack of awareness and still be responsible for the repercussions of his actions?  Is the harshness of Oedipus’ penalty and the suffering he endures from the consequences, a justifiable outcome given the circumstances?  Why does no one in the kingdom disagree with the punishment of Oedipus, and appear more shocked by the unintentional sins than the maiming he inflicts upon himself?

Oedipus Separating from Jocasta
Alexandre Cabanel
source Wikipedia

What we can take away from this drama is helplessness in the hands of fate.  Though everyone pities Oedipus and does not blame him, there is nothing they can do in the face of his punishment.  To the Greeks, fate is supreme and unaffected by human choice; Oedipus attempts to avoid his destiny yet only succeeds in bringing it to fruition.  Finally, we are exposed to a chilling Greek worldview, that we can “Count no mortal happy till he has passed the limit of his life secure from pain.”

Apparently Oedipus Rex, while first chronologically of the three Theban plays, is in fact the second in written order.  I will enjoy trying to find out the common threads between the three, and if I feel there are any inconsistencies due to the fact they were composed out of order.  The next one on the schedule is Oedipus at Colonus where we meet Oedipus in exile.

The Odyssey (an Oral Tradition) by Homer

The Odyssey

“Tell me, Muse, of the man of many ways, who was driven far journeys, after he had sacked Troy’s sacred citadel.”

It is nearly 20 years after the Trojan War and Ithaka is still without its king, Odysseus.  Anarchy reigns, as numerous suitors vie for the hand of his wife, Penelope, while ravaging his household goods and disrespecting his memory, and his son, Telemachos, is helpless to prevent them.  Has our hero perished in his quest to reach his homeland, or is he still alive somewhere, struggling to reach home?

The Odyssey begins in media res, or in the middle, where Odysseus is near the end of his journey, becoming shipwrecked on the land of the Phaiakians. These people, who we learn are very close to the gods, give Odysseus an audience for the retelling of his story and the various adventures he has experienced, while attempting to return home from the battlegrounds of Troy.

From a violent assault on the land of the Cicones, to narrowly escaping a drugged existence in the land of the Lotus-Eaters, Odysseus endangers his men by deciding to stay in the land of the Cyclops in hopes of gaining host-gifts, and they must set to perilous flight.  Poseidon, angered at the maiming of his Cyclops son, Polyphemus, plots their suffering and Odysseus and his men must endure captivity by Circe, an island goddess; a trip to the land of the Dead; a narrow escape from the Sirens, Scylla and Charybdis; and further imprisonment by the nymph, Calypso, lasting seven years, before he is released and lands on the island of the Phaiakians.  Yet, mainly because of the rage of Poseidon, but due also to Odysseus’ and his men’s misguided judgement, his whole crew is killed on the way home and he is left to continue the final part of his journey alone.

The Odyssey Homer

Fame and glory, or in Greek, kleos, are the most important values in this society. It appears that the suitors can disrespect and commandeer Odysseus’ household, only because there is no story attached to his fate.  If he had died fighting in Troy, and therefore receiving a generous helping of fame and glory, this inheritance would have passed down to Telemachus, which would have engendered a reverence and respect among the people. It might not have prevented a few of the more aggressive suitors attempting to utilize their power, but Telemachos certainly would have received more support and sympathy from other Ithakan families.   Gifts and spoils are another aspect of fame and glory.  The more one acquires, the more renown is added to their reputations.  This perhaps explains why Odysseus pours on the charm with the Phaiakians, who bestow on him more gifts than he could have won at Troy, then taxi him to Ithaka, unaware that they have angered Poseidon, who turns their ship to stone in the harbour on their journey back.

The guest-host relationship, or in Greek, xenia, is another aspect of Greek culture unfamiliar to modern readers.  If a guest visits your house, you are required by the tenets of hospitality to give him food and shelter.  These acts are even more important than discovering his name and peoples, as we often see this information offered after the initial formalities are served.  The concept of xenia is emphasized because one never knows if one is hosting a man or a god.  As a modern reader, it was amusing to see poor Telemachos attempt to extricate himself from Menelaos’ hospitality and avoid Nestor’s, in an effort to avoid wasting time in the search for his father.  I’m certain amusement wasn’t Homer’s intention but it wasn’t surprising as to the emphasis placed on this tradition.  Any deviation from this custom could result in dishonour and a possible feud with your potential host or guest.

The Odyssey Homer
1. Mt. Olympus   2. Troy   3. Kikonians   4. Lotus-Eaters   5. Cyclops
6. Aeolia’s Island   7. Laestrygonians   8. Circe’s Kingdom  9. Land of the Dead
10. Sirens   11. Scylla & Charybdis   12. Kalypso   13. Ithaka
source Nada’s ESL Island

Greek literature has been a surprising passion of mine.  From my first read of The Iliad, I was hooked and I often wonder why?  The heroes are chiefly concerned with fame, glory, reputation, pillaging and the spoils of war; the gods are jealous, capricious, vindictive and possess far too many human traits for comfort.  Yet I think what draws me to these characters is that they are so real …….. fallible, vulnerable, imperfect, yet they exhibit these deficiencies through an heroic, courageous and larger-than-life persona. They have their customs and traditions, institutions designed to help their society flourish, and which are important enough to sacrifice happiness, comfort and, at times, even their lives, to preserve.

The Odyssey Read Along Posts:  Book I & II / Book III & IV /  Book V & VI /  Book VII & VIII /  Book IX & X /  Book XI & XII / Book XIII & XIV /  Book XV & XVI /  Book XVII & XVIII /  Book XIX & XX /  Book XXI & XXII /  Book XXIII & XXIV

A note on translations:  if you plan to read only one translation of The Odyssey, I would highly recommend Richard Lattimore’s translation, as it is supposed to be closest to the original Greek, while also conveying well the substance of the story.  Fitzgerald is adequate but likes to embellish, and the Fagles translation …….. well, as one learned reviewer put it, “they are so colloquial, so far from Homeric that they feel more like modern adaptations than translations.”  I would have to agree.

For people who are interested in introducing their children to the tales of Homer, there are a number of excellent books for children which I will list here:

This book counts as Plethora of Books Classic Club Spin, so I finished her book and my spin book, as well.  I’m going to give myself a pat on the back and less guilt for not finishing my previous spin book (yet). 🙂

Translated by Richard Lattimore

 

Classics Club